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  1. Politics
21 April 2021

The defeat of the European Super League has shown another football is possible

Human spirit has triumphed over the brutal logic of the market – now fans must truly take control of their clubs.

By Paul Mason

Why would 12 of the richest men in football, executives paid for their supposed prowess in managing global brand names such as Barcelona and Manchester United, screw up so badly? Why did they think the players, the fans, Uefa, Fifa and the national governments of Europe would let them walk away with a £4bn cartel, leaving the eviscerated corpse of ordinary football on the dressing room floor?

As the European Super League plan lies in ruins, the answer is clear: capital. There’s too much of it chasing too little real economic value in the world.

Football’s finest fools fell for JP Morgan’s gambit for the same reason that Bitcoin’s value has quadrupled, rich people are spending millions on non-existent “digital art”, Lex Greensill proposed to pay the NHS workforce daily, and property speculators have built a glass swimming pool between the roofs of two luxury apartment blocks in London’s poverty-stricken Wandsworth.

Capitalism is confined within the oxygen tent of central bank money. The more central banks print money, the cheaper it is to borrow. And yet the real economy, its dynamism flattened after the 2008 crash and its capacity scarred by the Covid-19 pandemic, remains sluggish. So the free money created by governments – and yes, central banks are ultimately part of the state – can only flow upwards. 

A glance at the leaked details of the Super League proposal should provide a teachable moment about financialised monopoly capitalism. The aim was to create a cartel of clubs that would generate £4bn a year – double the revenue of the current European Champions League.

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Closing entry to the league was only half of the plan. The other half was to operate a US-style spending and salary cap, effectively forcing individual clubs and players into a semi-feudal relationship with the Super League itself. They would operate the same “capitalist communism” as the National Football League in the US – sharing the revenue more evenly than in a truly competitive competition. 

Ultimately, I have no doubt that the footballing brands nurtured for more than a century by working-class supporters and players would have ended up as sub-brands of the league itself, as with all the US sporting cartels. Take a look at the Super League’s website (while it’s still up) to see the beginnings of how that would look. 

What stopped the project was not just the power of fans, but the political zeitgeist. When the Super League bosses planned, in secret, to destroy football as a participatory sport, they will have been told “the fans don’t matter”. The real fans are the TV audiences in South Korea, Japan, the sports bars of the US, the village football dives in rural Nigeria. That’s where the majority of revenue would be generated for a venture such as this. And since money is cheap, all you needed was a big initial investment from JP Morgan, at a guaranteed return of 2-3 per cent, and, bingo, 12 men could destroy a sport that’s been created through collective endeavour over decades.

But the fans, it turns out, are also voters. Not just the fans of the breakaway clubs – such as the Chelsea supporters who turned out to protest yesterday – but the fans left behind on earth as the metaphorical space rocket of the Super League escapes its atmosphere.

The Super League used the Spanish courts – some of the most politicised and questionable in the developed world – to prevent Fifa and Uefa from blocking the move. I have no doubt it would have used the European Court of Justice to exploit every regulatory loophole.

But when the British political elite united in condemnation of the scheme – with Boris Johnson threatening to drop a “legislative bomb” – that was decisive. English football was at the epicentre of the Super League scheme because it is the most financialised, with major clubs already grabbed by asset strippers and riddled with the dodgy money of foreign magnates. It is the league in which fans have least control, but where players have gamed the system to achieve a high degree of autonomy, and political salience.

[See also: the furore over the proposed European Super League is about one question: who runs our lives?]

In the Thatcher era it was fashionable for players to be right wing, emitting dog-whistle racism, overt sexism and, in the case of Paul Gascoigne, once miming the actions of an Orange Order piper after scoring for Rangers against Celtic in 1998. Not any more. After Black Lives Matter, and Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign, the ethos many big players aspire to is progressive. Women’s football has been transformed from the butt of male chauvinist humour to a multimillion pound business. Teams – both at club level and on the international stage – are multi-ethnic. And though far-right subcultures are present on the terraces, most clubs understand their toxicity and make serious efforts to suppress them, both through messaging and spectator bans. 

The players, grasping the threat to both their bargaining power and political autonomy, were swift to voice their anger at the Super League. But the idea is not over. First, because football is not, as its regulators claim, a “pyramid”, in which money cascades from top to bottom. It is a class struggle – between fans and owners, players and owners, clubs and TV outlets, with big tech and high finance in a constant battle to make the money flow upwards, to those at the pinnacle.

The “super league idea has been around for more than 20 years. I remember covering at least one failed launch amid the financial froth that preceded the Lehman Brothers crash in 2008. It will stay around because the US sports cartel model works.

There is no international basketball, baseball or gridiron football for a reason: these are American-owned cartel sports, staged as a circus for global entertainment. They work because they embody the essential principles of monopoly capitalism: the cartel is more powerful than the companies within it; the companies more powerful than the employees (the players); and the consumers have no choice. 

The point about cartels, however, is that they kill capitalism. They kill innovation. They kill choice. American football, for example, is a truly dire sport to watch. And for a reason: all competition within it is ritualised. There is no chance of a new player inventing a totally new way of playing; no prospect of a Lionel Messi or a Diego Maradona-type figure transforming the game. 

That’s where Association Football is headed if the money men tighten their grip. There will be quarters instead of halves. The VAR starts and stops will evolve into ad breaks. The rules will change, just as they did for rugby league once Rupert Murdoch turned that into a cartelised business.

Less than a week ago, some fans were looking at a bleak upside for football if the Super League was formed: the remaining clubs could be definancialised and competitions such as the FA Cup or Europa League could rediscover the magical atmosphere they generated in the 1970s. But with the Super League in tatters, the opportunity is much greater. There would be cross-party support now for a German-style law stipulating that all clubs must be majority-owned by fans. This, on its own, has to be just a start – because one glance at the machinations of the fan-owned clubs shows them prone to factional manipulation. 

The think tank Common Wealth, together with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, proposed in 2019 a transfer levy to create a fund for fans to buy out clubs bankrupted by their owners. This would have to be accompanied by regulations such as the FA’s old Rule 34, which placed a cap on dividends paid to directors and effectively forbade the kind of leveraged buyouts that put foreign billionaires in charge of much of the top-flight English clubs.

What we really need is public ownership, regulation and control of the national football infrastructure. The clubs themselves could be a mixed economy – of mutually owned, private and publicly listed businesses or even cooperatives. Each of these models would work so long as there was government-level regulation of the leagues themselves, and a non-profit infrastructure replacing the English Premier League and the FA.

Having generated momentum to transform football, now is not the time to lose it. Capitalism is, at its root, the struggle of money to inject itself into all non-monetary aspects of human life. In football terms the latter is the atmosphere, the passion, the history, the flare smuggled in and burned on the terraces, and the banner calling for the club’s owners to go to hell. This human aspect is always in conflict with the commercial aspect. 

But there comes a point where human reason defeats economic reason. In football, we have just reached that point. Another football is possible.

[See also: Paul Mason on how capitalism is destroying the planet]

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